Financial Advice after Losing a Spouse

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

After the funeral is over and everyone has returned home you are faced with the overwhelming task of getting your financial affairs in order.  It’s natural to feel disinterested, distracted and confused with all the decisions that need to be made.  Over the next few years you may feel like you are in a fog and you may have trouble concentrating. During the first couple years be easy on yourself and avoid making any major decisions.  You may be approached by a lot of people trying to give you advice and sell you products, avoid any major changes or decision for at least a year.  Don’t buy or sell a house or make major decisions on where you want to live, avoid any major changes to your investments and avoid making any significant gifts to charity or family members at this time.  Be aware of salespeople who use scare tactics to coax you into making decisions before you are ready.  Take it slow, give yourself time to grieve.   In a few years you may have a completely different perspective on how you want to proceed. 

There are some things that need to be done right away.  Initially it is important to be sure you have enough liquidity to cover your living expenses.  Start by getting organized – if you have always handled the household finances you know what bills need to be paid and where all of your assets are.  If not review all of your current bills and go through the credit card statement and check register to get handle on bills that will need to be paid.  Pull together all of your financial statements to understand your current situation.  Evaluate you current income situation to be sure you have enough money to cover your expenses.

Relatively soon you will want to apply for any benefits for which you may be entitled.  This may include Social Security, Veterans Benefits, Life Insurance or a Pension.   If you spouse was working, be sure to contact their employer to apply for any unpaid wages or survivor benefits.  This is also a good time to make sure you have adequate health insurance.  You should also contact your home and auto insurance company to make sure your coverage is intact.

At this point you may want to assemble a financial support team to help you through this difficult time.  Depending on the complexity of your situation, it may be helpful to hire an Estate Planning Attorney, a Certified Public Account and a fee-only Certified Financial Planner to help you settle the estate, file tax returns, retitle assets and eventually develop of financial plan.  Ask friends and colleagues to recommend and help you select trusted professionals.

Understanding Social Security Survivors Benefits is Worth the Effort

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

There are a myriad of different Social Security options available to widows and widowers.  If you have lost a spouse, it is worthwhile to take the time required to fully understand your Social Security benefits. As a widow or widower, you have the choice of taking Social Security based on your own work record, or Social Security based on the work record of your spouse (survivor benefits).  You are eligible for 100% of your deceased spouse’s basic benefit, at full retirement age.  Reduced benefits are available as early as age 60, and if you are disabled, benefits can begin at 50.  The full retirement age is 66 if you were born between 1945 and 1956, and gradually increases up to 67 if you were born between 1957 and 1960.  The normal retirement age for everyone born after 1960 is 67.

If you started taking Social Security on your own record, before the loss of your spouse, call Social Security to see if you can receive more in the form of survivor benefits.  One nice feature of Social Security survivor’s benefits is the option to begin taking benefits based on your own earnings record, and later switch to survivors benefits.  Conversely, you can begin taking survivor’s benefits and later switch to benefits based on your own work record.   Unlike standard spousal benefits, you can switch even if you started taking benefits prior to reaching full retirement age.

Generally, you cannot get survivor’s benefits if you remarry before age 60.  After age 60, remarriage does not impact your benefits.  Additionally, at age 62 you are eligible to get benefits based on your new spouses benefits.  You may have the choice between benefits based on your own work record, benefits based on the work record of your deceased spouse, or benefits based on the work record of your current spouse.  Unfortunately, you have to choose from one of these options.  If other family members are entitled to survivor’s benefits, there is a limit to the total amount that can be paid to a family.

 If you receive a pension from a federal, state, or local government job where you did not pay Social Security, your survivor’s benefits may be reduced.    Your Social Security benefits will be reduced by two thirds of your government pension.  Additionally, if you collect Social Security based on your own work record, and you receive a pension from a job where you did not pay Social Security, your benefit may be reduced due to the Windfall Elimination Provision. Be sure to discuss this with your Social Security representative before you file for benefits.

Social Security survivor’s benefit can be very complex; please take the time to fully understand your options.  Before filing for Social Security, research the options available to you at www.socialsecurity.gov and meet with a Social Security representative to fully understand your choices.

Financial Words of Wisdom from Widows for Widows

Jane M. Young, CFP, EA


I have met with numerous widows over the last few years to get a better understanding of what they are experiencing and to learn how I can best support and assist them.   Below I have shared some of the most meaningful and consistent messages and comments I heard from these brave women.  I hope this is helpful to both men and women who have recently lost a spouse and family members of someone who has recently lost a spouse.

  • Avoid making major decisions during the first year.  I think I heard this from everyone I spoke with and it is very wise advice.
  • Be obsessively selfish, after the loss of a spouse it is especially important to focus on you and physically take care of yourself.  Later, once you are feeling better you can help others.
  • Grief is very sneaky, one moment you feel fine then it sneaks up on you.  Expect some irrational behavior.
  • Be easy on yourself, it is normal for grief to last three years.  The fog will begin to clear after the first year but things will still be fuzzy for up to three years.  This can be difficult because friends and family expect you to heal more quickly than is realistic.  Everyone grieves differently but three years is very normal.
  • During the first year you feel like you’re operating in a fog, it is easy to forget key dates.  You frequently feel lost and confused and forget how to do things.
  • Grief can consume hours and hours of your day.  It’s hard to focus and get things done.  There is very little energy to learn new things.  It’s normal to feel apathetic.
  • The loss of a spouse is a huge tragedy in your life.  Everyone else seems so focused on themselves. Try not to get upset at others who go on with their own lives as if nothing has happened.  They are busy and they don’t want to open themselves to the pain.
  • It’s very important to take the time to select a trusted team of professionals.  Your team should include an attorney, financial planner and an accountant, if your financial planner does not prepare taxes.
  • Being a new widow can be very scary, it is scary to be alone.  You have a tremendous need for encouragement and acknowledgement that you are making progress.  Try to spend time with positive and supportive friends and family.
  • It’s hard to shift from making plans and setting goals together to making plans and setting goals on your own.  You don’t have to do everything the way you had planned with your spouse.  You need to set your own course and reach for new hopes and dreams.